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Veterans’ Hospital Held Liable for Delayed Cancer Diagnosis

Two doctors discussing information on a tablet.

Shot of two young doctors using a digital tablet late at night in a modern hospital

The Western District of New York has ruled partly in favor of a veteran and his wife in a case against the United States, claiming that the Buffalo (New York) Veteran’s Administration Medical Center (VAMC) failed to timely diagnose cancerous growths suffered by the man while in the defendant’s care. On Monday, the court held that the plaintiffs established medical malpractice for failure to timely diagnose the plaintiff’s squamous cell carcinoma, and that they were entitled to recover $1.95 million in damages.

The case was filed in 2017 under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The plaintiffs claimed that the VAMC was negligent in its delinquent diagnoses of both a lump in his neck and a skin atypicality on his temple. The instant decision followed a bench trial, comprising nine days of testimony spread out over the course of several months. After the trial concluded in June 2020, the parties submitted their written summaries, proposed findings of fact, and conclusions of law.

In its 70-page decision and order, the court reviewed the plaintiff’s medical history in detail. The court described how the plaintiff sought medical attention for the lump in his neck in 2013, but was told by the VAMC, after a non-dye CT scan, that it was non-cancerous. Thereafter, he went to the VAMC for a skin lesion on his temple, which, after a biopsy, was determined to be non-malignant.

When the patient went to a non-VAMC physician regarding a skin irregularity near his ear, the doctor ordered a secondary and more thorough biopsy on the temple lesion. In early 2015, the non-VAMC physician determined that the skin irregularity was melanoma that had to be removed.

As to the lump in the plaintiff’s neck, the plaintiff sought further medical attention in 2015, reporting that it had grown in size. A VAMC PET scan showed that the lump was tonsil cancer that had to be treated with chemotherapy. In 2017, after completion of the chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer recurred and the plaintiff underwent a tonsillectomy and modified neck dissection.

The court weighed the opinions of various medical experts in determining the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s squamous cell carcinoma. The court ultimately held that the 20-month delay in diagnosis likely led to the plaintiff’s tonsil cancer recurrence.

As to the damages figure, the court considered testimony by the plaintiff and his wife regarding his physical and mental suffering. The testimony indicated that the plaintiff has reduced stamina, anxiety, and that the couple has suffered in part because they cannot socialize the way they used to due to the plaintiff’s discomfort with eating in public. The order explained that as a result of the cancer and treatment, the plaintiff must eat slowly and can easily choke on his food.

Ultimately, the court held the United States liable for FTCA violations for the belated diagnosis of the plaintiff’s tonsil cancer, finding that the defendant’s deviation from the standard of care denied the plaintiff a chance of better outcome. The court found that the case presented regarding the delayed diagnosis of the plaintiff’s melanoma did not meet the same preponderance of the evidence standard. The court awarded the plaintiffs $1,250,000 for past pain and suffering, $600,000 for future pain and suffering, and $100,000 for loss of consortium.

The plaintiffs are represented by Connors LLP, and the federal government by the United States Attorney’s Office.

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